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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 6. Howells and Realism

Section 1. New Frontiers and Old Settlements

AFTER the weeping fifties came the Civil War, which broke the pattern, though at the time it contributed little to the mode of fiction except new materials for the incessant popular romancers who turned their pens from the past to the present without any change as regards sensationalism. What the wicked Tory or the fierce Indian had been, the crafty Confederate or the cruel Federal—it depended upon the section to which the novelist was native—now became. The cloudy atmosphere and turgid style of the old romance wrapped themselves promptly around the new events and assisted in the process which, while the wounds of the struggle were still raw, began to transform it into an epic memory. That memory, however, had to wait a generation before it achieved any considerable maturity. Meanwhile, another tendency in fiction dispossessed the sentimentalism which had dispossessed the school of Cooper.

After the Revolution there had sounded from many literary throats the cry that the new nation ought to have an epic, as Greece and Rome and medieval Catholicism and English Puritanism had had; and although nothing great had been forthcoming the demand persisted until the middle of the next century. Then it had gradually given way before the idea that, as Simms pointed out, prose fiction is the modern epic form. Criticism came therefore to demand “The Great American Novel,” not so much to enshrine the national past as to reflect the national present on a scale commensurate with the new consciousness. Although this expectation, too, was disappointed, it undoubtedly had something to do with the rapid rise of the fashion of local color, which may be thought of as initiated by Bret Harte’s story, The Luck of Roaring Camp, in 1868, and which for some thirty years gave a dominant type to imaginative writing in the United States. The war had stirred the surface of various provincialisms which now discovered themselves and one another. In 1869 Mrs. Stowe in Oldtown Folks celebrated the manners of village New England; two years later Richard Malcolm Johnston did the same for Georgia with his Dukesborough Tales and Edward Eggleston for the Indiana frontier with The Hoosier School-Master. These pioneers were shortly followed in almost every quarter of the country: by George Washington Cable in New Orleans, by Constance Fenimore Woolson in the Great Lakes region, by Sarah Orne Jewett in New England, by Joel Chandler Harris among the negroes, by Mary Noailles Murfree (“Charles Egbert Craddock”) in the Tennessee mountains, by Thomas Nelson Page in Virginia; and thereafter by an increasing multitude who strove, apparently, to furnish the country with an ordnance survey of all its riches of local custom. In the North, where the idea of “The Great American Novel” had been strongest, a good many writers and readers gave themselves to the new vogue in a romantic enthusiasm for glorifying the total national picture; in the South, the prevailing mood was a passion for displaying the depth and charm of the society which had received a mortal blow from the war. Too many in both sections regarded local color as a garment which, when worn by a story, called for a swagger or an elegance in the action which was not natural to it; others regarded the garment as a sufficient thing in itself and nearly dispensed with the flesh and blood of narrative; too many, also, where the color was already thin, beat it thinner. Nevertheless, the episode contributed something to the advance of realism. Scenes could no longer be unlocalized; costume and dialect had to be reported with accuracy; characters and plots must consequently be fitted, more or less, to the actual circumstances among which they moved. The ordinary methods of local color, no less than doctrines of realism imported from Europe or than those Americans who espoused the doctrines, cleared the way for a critical conflict between romance and realism. Granted, controversy finally ran, that real persons and events should of course be represented, ought they to be merely everyday persons and events exhibited to the life or ought they instead to be selected with a view of making more of heightened moments and superior men and women than could be made of commonplace?

Bret Harte, however, and his followers fought no critical battles. Their victory was too easy. When The Luck of Roaring Camp was published California was the microcosm and focus of America. Every section was represented there among the gold-seekers who gave the community its picturesqueness. Every section of course read Bret Harte with an interest compounded of curiosity about the unknown and delight in the familiar. The success of the master naturally suggested imitation, not only in regard to the local manners and types of other neighborhoods but in the very dimensions of the tales which he had thus begotten. The generation after 1870 practised the short story as no generation had ever done before. Brown and Cooper and Simms and Melville and Hawthorne and Mrs. Stowe had all indeed written short stories, but the novel had called forth their major faculties. Bret Harte, a voluminous author, wrote only one full-length novel; Thomas Bailey Aldrich, H. C. Bunner, Cable, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland, Miss Jewett, Miss Murfree, Page, Frank R. Stockton, though they wrote novels, are better known for their shorter stories; Ambrose Bierce and O. Henry wrote no novels at all. There was still an economic factor, as during the days of Cooper. Until the passage of the international copyright law of 1891 British novels could be freely pirated in the United States and American competition increasingly took the form of short stories, further encouraged by the multiplication of native magazines particularly hospitable to brevity. The novel, in consequence, was left standing for a few years out of the main channel of imaginative production. Those who chose it were likely to do so because of greater seriousness or larger strength than might be needed by the story-writers who were tempted to slighter and yet more profitable undertakings.

During the sixties realism hovered in the air without definitely alighting. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for instance, in Elsie Venner (1861) worked his romantic problem of heredity upon a ground of shrewd realistic observation; Bayard Taylor employed a similar composition of elements; Louisa M. Alcott in Little Women (1868) and Thomas Bailey Aldrich in The Story of a Bad Boy (1870) turned away from the watery illusions which in respectable circles had furnished the substance for children’s books; at the end of the decade the loud laughter of Mark Twain began to clear the scene. The distinction, however, of writing the first American novel which may be called realistic in a modern sense belongs to Colonel John W. De Forest of Connecticut, whose Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), as William Dean Howells said, was “of an advanced realism before realism was known by that name.” Not half heroic or partizan enough to suit the contemporary feeling about the war, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion missed the vogue of a war book, and when the tendency in fiction had caught up with it apparently it seemed too much a war book to fit the new taste. But no other novel of the decade has been less dimmed by a half century of realism. Coldly truthful in its descriptions of battles and camps, crisp and pointed in its dialogue, penetrating, if not over-subtle, in its character analysis, sensible in its plot, and in its general temper alert and sophisticated, it is still almost as convincing as it was once precocious. De Forest wrote numerous other novels but none so notable. All of them suffered from the rivalry of local color in its romantic phases.

While these phases originated on the frontier, so often influential in American culture, it was also on the frontier, though in another section of it, that realism took its earliest definite stand. Perhaps some bareness in the life of the Middle West, lacking both the longer memories of the Atlantic States and the splendid golden expectations of California, discouraged romance there and set going that tendency toward naturalism which descends unbroken from Edward Eggleston (1837–1902) through E. W. Howe and Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters. At first glance Eggleston looks strange enough in this gallery, for like Holland and Roe he was a clergyman and nourished upon the same soft food as they. As a Methodist on the frontier, though of cultivated Virginia stock, he was even brought up to think of novels and all such works of the imagination as evil things. But his diversified experience as an itinerant preacher, or “circuit rider,” and his reflective and studious habits lifted him out of these narrow nooks of opinion. It is true that he shared the customary local color motive. “It used to be a matter of no little jealousy with us, I remember,” he says, speaking of Westerners, “that the manners, customs, thoughts, and feelings of New England country people filled so large a place in books, while our life, not less interesting, not less romantic, and certainly not less filled with humorous and grotesque material, had no place in literature. It was as though we were shut out of good society.” He had, however, a larger and sounder motive. Whereas Mrs. Stowe or her fellows would have thought of themselves as writing fiction considerably—or even primarily—for the sake of its moral consequences, Eggleston, having read Taine’s Art in the Netherlands, undertook to portray the life of southern Indiana in the faithful, undoctrinaire spirit of a Dutch painter, and wrote The Hoosier School-Master (1871). Refusing to follow the violent and yet easy road of the dime-novelists, he confined himself to a plain tale of plain men and women, choosing for his scene, however, a backwoods district where true Hoosiers flourished at their most typical, rather than any of the more cultivated Indiana communities. His plot exists almost solely for the sake of the manners described, the backwoods sentiments and dialects, labors and amusements.

These singularities had already been exposed by Bayard Rush Hall in The New Purchase (1855), and there was beginning to grow up a modest literature reporting “that curious poor-whitey race which is called ‘tar-heel’ in the northern Carolina, ‘sand-hiller’ in the southern, ‘corn-cracker’ in Kentucky, ‘Yahoo’ in Mississippi, and in California ‘Pike’ … the Hoosiers of the dark regions of Indiana and the Egyptians of southern Illinois”—a race, still not utterly extinct, which later observers think of as the “contemporary ancestors” of those modern Americans who have outgrown eighteenth-century conditions as the “poor whites” have not. All of Eggleston’s essential novels deal with this aspect of America, whatever the scene: Indiana in The Hoosier School-Master, The End of the World (1872), and Roxy (1878); Ohio in The Circuit Rider (1874); Illinois in The Graysons (1887); Minnesota in The Mystery of Metropolisville (1873). Light is thrown upon his aims in fiction by the fact that he subsequently aspired to write a “History of Life in the United States,” which he carried through two erudite, humane, and graceful volumes, neither of them, so abundant was his learning, able to bring the account beyond 1700. The Hoosier novels, simple in plot, clearcut in characterization, concise and lucid in language, unwaveringly accurate in their setting, manners, and language, are indispensable documents, even finished chapters, for his unfinished masterpiece. What has given the School-Master its primacy in reputation is probably nothing but its having been first in the field, though something may also be allowed for its compactness and freshness of substance; Roxy is more interesting, and The Circuit Rider quite as informing. The Graysons deserves credit for the reserve with which it admits the youthful Lincoln into its narrative, uses him at a crucial moment, and then lets him withdraw without a hint of his future greatness. The morals of Eggleston’s tales, it is true, are over-obvious, though they are not strained or hectic. Without any rush of narrative, neither has he verbosity or inflation of style. Even where, in his fidelity to violent frontier habits, his incidents appear melodramatic, the handling is sure and direct, for the reason, as he says of The Circuit Rider, that whatever is incredible in the story is true. No novelist, within the range of topics Eggleston touched, is more candid, few more believable. With greater range and fire he might have been a national figure as well as the earliest American realist to leave behind him a settled classic, a true folk-book of its neighborhood.